Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Linn Restaurant - great Japanese food in Astoria, Queens

You may be under the impression that all the great New York restaurants are in Manhattan. Wrong! Some of the best ethnic food exists outside of Manhattan, in tiny little restaurants run by immigrants. One of the best outer borough neighborhoods for this kind of food has always been Astoria, Queens, which is traditionally a Greek neighborhood but also has a great selection of Italian and other Mediterranean food. There are probably more restaurants per capita in Astoria than anywhere in Manhattan. I've actually lived in Astoria twice, and it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. Great food, great people, and while a lot of Manhattan has been on a gentrification spree, Astoria has always maintained a balance between tradition and trendiness.

One thing the neighborhood never had before was a really authentic and really good Japanese restaurant. Well, that's changed.

Linn Restaurant
29-13 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11106

There are two kinds of Japanese restaurants in New York City. There's "New York style" Japanese (some high-end places like Megu and Nobu fit that definition) and then there are restaurants that are really like walking into Tokyo. They may be trendy or rustic, expensive or cheap, but they have in common the fact that you might expect to find a restaurant exactly like that while strolling through Akasaka or Shibuya or Ebisu or wherever your favorite Tokyo neighborhood happens to be. Linn is in that latter category, though it is on the trendier side. (Tokyo's a pretty trendy city too.)

Linn actually used to be a different Japanese restaurant, called Shima. I ate there once, and that was enough. This is not Shima, which closed some time ago. Linn is 100% new and different, just occupying the same address.

My wife and I ate there last weekend because she knows the owner and head chef. So, call this a biased review if you want. But if I didn't have a good experience, I just wouldn't write anything. So the fact that you're seeing this here at all means something.

Photo shamelessly lifted from the restaurant's web site (as are several others here):

This photo was actually taken from the seat where my wife sat. I would have been just to the right.

The chef's name is Tanaka Shigenori, and before opening this place, he was a chef at Morimoto and Masa, two of New York's most famous Japanese restaurants. He was part of the reason for their success. He told us a story - and I can't vouch for the accuracy but I have no reason to disbelieve him - of how he had a run-in with one of the managers at Morimoto and quit. Well, Masuharu Morimoto himself fired the manager and re-hired Tanaka. Assuming that's true, it should tell you a little bit about this guy's skills.

We sat at the sushi counter, where we could talk to him and watch him work. Obviously my wife did most of the talking as I ate, translating for me when needed. (He does speak English, but obviously not to a native Japanese speaker.) We ordered beer to start and then on Tanaka's recommendation I settled on the beef teriyaki while my wife ordered up the chirashi - a dish she gets almost every time we have Japanese (not to mention when she actually lived there), so she's got a good basis for comparison. If you've never had it, chirashi is basically just a big bowl of sushi - the rice is at the bottom of the bowl, with various kinds of fish and other sushi varieties on top.

The counter area:

We ordered Sapporo, as we noticed it was available on draft, and I was shocked by how different it was from literally every other Japanese restaurant that serves Sapporo in this city. It tasted as good as the stuff we got fresh from the brewery in Tokyo. Even the texture was different from every other restaurant, with tiny Champagne-like bubbles. You may remember that Japanese beer in the US has been a sore spot with me for a while - even high-end restaurants in New York just serve a terrible glass (or bottle) of Sapporo.

I told Tanaka this and he explained that for Sapporo beer, maintenance is very important. He cleans the entire draft system every night. He knew exactly what I was talking about when I said the Sapporo I'd gotten at other restaurants - including four-star places like Megu - tasted skunky and nasty, even on draft. He said it's because they don't clean the tap and kegs. He even told us that Sapporo themselves have to go around inspecting restaurants these days because they get complaints from Japanese customers about this. He has never failed an inspection.

My beef teriyaki was honestly the best I have ever had. Most Japanese restaurants will use poor-quality beef and attempt to cover it up with the sauce. Not at Linn. I've had Kobe beef, and this was actually more tender than that (admittedly, I've only had the California variety of "Kobe beef"). I could literally cut it with my chopsticks. And I could taste it; it wasn't just doused in an overwhelming teriyaki sauce. It was served pretty rustically on a heavy and still-searing cast iron pan, which gets extra points from me.

Apologies for the poor quality cell phone pic, which I know does not do his food justice, especially in color:

Here's a better picture of some of his food, just to show you something a little more artful (not my photo):

My wife similarly said it had been a long, long time since she's had chirashi as good as what she had at Linn - and as I said, she gets it almost every time we eat Japanese. I asked Tanaka where he gets his fish, and he replied "Tsukiji".

That's a pretty significant fact. Tsukiji is the main fish market in Tokyo, not New York. He actually has someone buy his fish for him there and ship it fresh to New York. It really doesn't get any more authentic than this - most Japanese restaurants in New York (including at least a few of the famous ones) get their fish from the Fulton Fish Market. You're eating a Japanese dish with American fish. Not the case at Linn. This is 100% Japanese sushi, both in the raw materials and the preparation.

I was somewhat disappointed that they were out of the black sesame ice cream I had ordered for dessert. This is something I've found in only one other restaurant in New York - Sakagura (as part of their unbelievable black sesame creme brulee) - and I don't get to eat it very often. I settled on the fried ice cream instead, which is something I've never actually had before but always associated with cheap Chinese restaurants. But it was amazing, with a really crispy/soft pastry shell, lots of fresh berries and two sauces (chocolate and I believe raspberry). Again, my cell phone really makes kind of a travesty out of the photo:

This is probably the most "western" dessert they offer, actually - if there's one thing I still have a hard time with in Japanese cuisine, it's the desserts. Lots of tofu and red bean and whatnot. And that's most of the dessert menu here.

We were there on a Saturday night and it was packed by the time we left, with a line waiting to be seated. This is a new restaurant, but it looks like Tanaka's already making a name for himself. He explained that he was originally closed for lunch and on Mondays, but that now he's open 7 days and all day long to meet demand.

The prices are reasonable. Our total for two, including drinks, entrees and dessert, was around $70.

One more dessert shot to leave you with:

I'd love to know where he gets those berries. I never found anywhere in Astoria that sold anything that fresh.


  1. wow my mouth was watering reading this entry!

    the part about the fish being shipped from japan is amazing. the next time i am in new york, i am going here!

    ps. kobe beef is my weakness.

    pss. how pricey would you say are the dishes?

  2. Woops, I forgot to talk about the prices! I'll figure out a way to add that in there.

    Not pricey, though. I think the total for the two of us was something like $70. Most of the entrees are like $15-$20.

  3. Oh, I should also clarify (and I will change it) that that beef is *not* Kobe beef. I was trying to say it was actually better than the Kobe beef that I've had, which has always been a little disappointing. I always expect it to be super-tender and it always just feels like a regular steak in my mouth. This was actually more tender.

  4. Anonymous9:56 AM

    Maybe you've been unlucky enough to generally get lower-grade "Kobe-style" beef?

    I had some "Hida beef" in Takayama (in Gifu praefecture), which was melt-in-the-mouth, even as sashimi!

  5. Yeah, well it's very hard to get true Kobe beef that's actually from Kobe in the United States. Every restaurant I've ever been to serves California Kobe beef. I'm sure it's not the same, just like the fish. They can still call it "Kobe beef" because that just refers to the breed of cow (it's like Angus beef or whatever) not to where they're raised.

    So this beef probably wasn't better than Kobe beef from Kobe, but it's better than Kobe beef from California.

  6. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Actually, the *breed* is called "Wagyu" (Australia breeds some as well).

    There is a specific strain of Wagyu called "Tajima" which is used for Kobe beef.

  7. Anonymous9:22 AM

    They called the cops because the waitress sent me something I didn't order, and they refused to refund it!!!
    I was ordering from Linn Resaurant for delivery. I ordered the nabe yaki soup, which has shrimp, chicken, egg, vegetable, and udon. When they sent the soup it was just broth and udon with seaweed, but was charged for the nabe yaki soup. The manager refused to exchange the soup, or refund the soup. When I went there to show him their mistake and to return the soup the manager ignored me and called the police. I was talking to him I never raised my voice...The cops were very upset that he would do that, and the customers couldn't believe it either. Never received any service, in fact i was treated like a criminal for their mistake.

  8. Wow, I'm sorry that happened! The only thing I can think is that rightly or wrongly, they felt threatened by you in some way. All of the staff are Japanese; they're probably not used to being confronted. Not that that necessarily excuses it.

  9. Anonymous11:56 PM

    But that's just it. They know me, I wasn't confrontational I was trying to reason with them. I never even raised my voice. I was asking to switch the soup, or if I can get a refund. They wouldn't even listen to me on the phone. When I got there I tried to show him the soup, he just went in the kitchen and came out with the phone calling 911. The customers witnessed this and were completely shocked at his over reacting of my request.

  10. 911?! Yeah, that's definitely excessive. All I can think is that they just didn't know any better. Not sure what else to say about it.

  11. Anonymous11:56 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. hiroshi7:39 PM

    do the waiters speak english fluently? because i got a job there recently and my japanese sucks but im assuming most of their customers there are American. their renovating the place now so i havent actually worked there yet but hopefully i wont have to stay in the kitchen all day once i do. id understand if they felt uncomfortable having an 18 year old with no prior experiences in waitering be a waiter.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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